The Sky is Falling!

Male mountain bluebird

It’s spring in the Black Hills of South Dakota, and, as of today, April 3, the mountain bluebirds have been here for about three weeks. Their winter home is in the southernmost west states of the U.S. (California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas) plus northern Mexico. But if you didn’t know where they were coming from, you would think pieces of the sky were indeed falling, for these birds are colored the most brilliant blue imaginable.

Mountain bluebirds (along with gardeners and farmers) are the ultimate optimists. The day after I saw the first pair for the year, a blizzard struck the plains about an hour to the east of us.

No, in the Dakotas, winter doesn’t give up easily. Today, we awoke to an inch-and-a-half of the white stuff on the ground (a bit more is on the way). With a diet comprised mainly of insects and spiders, mountain bluebirds have their work cut out for them. What self-respecting spider, wasp, beetle, grasshopper, or caterpillar is going to be doing loop-the-loops in the air or taking an upside-down stroll on the underside of a leaf? (especially since the leaves here have yet to emerge).

Not one.

Yet, as you might imagine, there are still insects and spiders outside, but they aren’t nearly as accessible or in as large numbers observed in summertime.

Fortunately, mountain bluebirds have other places to look for six- and eight-legged prey. Currently, mountain bluebirds along our road spend a lot of time foraging in a large unmowed field where the dried stalks of grass and thatch provide shelter to over-wintering insects. Other places the birds may search include: tree cavities, under the eaves of buildings, in the leaf litter, or in galls. Other insects, like ants and termites (not really mountain bluebird food anyway), aren’t accessible, for they winter in the soil below the frost line; nor are the larvae of dragonflies and damselflies, who grow and thrive under winter’s blanket of frozen water.

A Hackberry tree (Celtis occidentalis) makes a great tree for songbirds and hummingbirds.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. When spiders and insects are scarce, mountain bluebirds will resort to hackberries, grapes, currants, dogwoods, elderberries, and dried fruits of other plants for food. I can attest to the value of hackberry trees to songbirds in early spring: just last week in Pierre, SD, the neighborhood’s hackberry trees were dripping with robins and cedar waxwings as they devoured the trees’ berries (When I spent time in west Texas, I observed a goshawk nesting atop a hackberry’s main trunk, while in the vicinity, a pair of Bell’s vireos and several hummingbirds built their nests in some other hackberry trees’ branchtips).

Warmer weather in South Dakota will eventually prevail. And with it will come other birds, adorned in the spectacular palettes only nature can conjure. I look forward to the day when I see the first western tanager of the season. Black and bright yellow feathers color the wings and breast of this bird, while the fire of a sunset blazes atop their throats and crowns.

When that highly anticipated moment finally arrives and I hear the tanager’s characteristic upward tik-tik-tik declaration in the canopy of a pine tree, I’ll be the first to say:

Male western tanager

The sun is falling!

Have a great one.

Credits:

https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Mountain_Bluebird/lifehistory

https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/mountain-bluebird

https://www.si.edu/spotlight/buginfo/winter

The Car with the Harry Potter Scar

…It happened at Wind Cave National Park

Springtime along the Lookout Point Trail in Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota (photo taken in March 2009, and not reflective of current snowpack conditions).

When my husband Dan returned from his awesome cardio workout—a cross country ski through Cold Brook Canyon in Wind Cave National Park—he was dismayed to find our family’s efficient little Impreza disfigured by a hit and run. He frowned (and said a few choice words) as he studied the new four-inch long scratch and three-eighths of an inch deep crease in the car’s metal.

Bummer.

When your car gets marred and messed-with by someone else, you expect them to do what’s honest and right…

Right?

But alas, there was no note on the dash. No address, no name, no…nothing. But despite this lack of forthrightness, he found plenty of clues as to the perpetrator’s identity.

Cold Brook Canyon is a treasure-loaded trail situated in Wind Cave National Park. Following an old roadcut, in the summer it is a place for viewing such gems as lazuli buntings, rock and canyon wrens, numerous woodpeckers, Clark’s nutcrackers, swallows, eastern phoebes, and many other birds. The various seeps in the canyon provide habitat for reptiles and amphibians in the park, and, on one hiking occasion, we discovered an elk rack laying in a nearby drainage.

Skiing on Forest Service land in the Black Hills.

Wintertime in the Southern Black Hills oftentimes provides sporadic opportunities for cross country skiing. This year, we have been blessed with more white stuff than usual, so on this particular day, my husband decided to take advantage of this fact to get his heart pumping. He likes to brag that he’s put in around 50 ski days this winter so far (with a minimum of 30 minutes of actual ski time each episode). I like to brag right back that I’m at least at 75 ski days; there is a lot of Forest Service land in the Black Hills, and most are crisscrossed with logging roads—perfect for cross-country skiing (after you make your own tracks).

Because of their concern for damaging the park’s outstanding underground resources (Wind Cave), the park doesn’t salt their roads (they are worried about the chemicals seeping down and compromising cave resources). Consequently, any cars driving into the park function basically like salt blocks on wheels. Whenever a vehicle is parked for any length of time, bison and/or deer gravitate toward it and start licking the door panels, bumper, fenders—anywhere that might be splashed with salt.

Tongue-lick marks on the sides of the car.

Tasty.

And when several bison crowd around a single car, they tend to get a bit feisty to maintain their territory. Horns and head butts/swipes are common tactics used to tell competitors to back off.

And that’s what my husband speculates happened: a bison, crowded and annoyed by his buddies, tossed his head and, in the process scraped and dented our vehicle.

(Here’s the other part I didn’t tell you: when Dan returned to his car, there was a large male bison licking the car’s passenger side door. Bison are unpredictable; they can decide to lollygag in one place for hours on end. Dan didn’t have that kind of time, so he snuck over to the driver’s side, quickly opened the door, jumped in, put the car in reverse, and made a quick getaway. By then, people had driven into the parking lot and saw this entire ridiculous episode. They were laughing. I would be too, assuming everything went as planned).

Dan is 99% sure that our car’s damage was made by a bison.

But I know better. That lightning-shaped scar gives it away.

The real culprit was:

Voldemort (and I’m guessing he doesn’t carry car insurance)